NIGMS Data on the timeline from BA to PhD to Asst Prof to R01

Feb 14 2012 Published by under NIH, NIH Careerism

The previous director of NIGMS, Jeremy Berg, continues his established interest in transmitting NIH career and grant award data to you, Dear Reader. This is, in essence, a guest post. I received the following email...

Hi DM: I was reading your recent post and remembered that I did some analysis at NIGMS that I presented at our advisory council and on other occasions, but it predated the Feedback Loop.

The study was to look at newly funded assistant professors or equivalent ranks from 2004-2006 (360 individuals) and to examine the times (in years) between when they received their BS/BA degrees, when they received their doctorates, when the started in their assistant professor positions, and when they got their R01s (manually from their biosketches). The results are attached. The median time from BS/BA to funding was 15 years. The average age of award was estimated to be 38 years.

Let me know if you have any questions. Feel free to post this if you want.

Best, Jeremy

I most certainly do want. Take a gander at this, folks (click to embiggen).

Now obviously the 360 individuals are but a tiny slice of the NIH-wide pool of PIs. And the 2004-06 window is just one point along the long trendline that we were just discussing. Still, it reflected the situation in one IC right at the time the NIH was getting exercised over the 42 years-to-R01 graph. So it hits the right note.

As a completely untethered personal opinion, I think graduate studies that last 6.7 years are far too long. If I was running the zoo I'd like to see that median back at 5.0 and be much, much peakier. That long-ish tail extending to 10 years and beyond is ridiculous. The post-doctoral training interval, I have less problem with. Five years doesn't seem too horrible. Although I suppose that could be shaved back a little bit too.

The time to first award after appointment just puts a histogram on the problem that we already know about. Again, were I the Boss of Science, I'd want to get major funding in the hands of good people faster. If you work backwards from the population that eventually won an award, i.e. are "deserving" in some sense, wouldn't you rather they had the $$ as early in their independent career as possible?

It would be really fascinating to know if the ESI hoopla has shifted this distribution back to the left by any significant amount.

Now thinking about these data some more....wow, take heart o ye of dismal training experience! I was thinking about the prediction for success/failure for a half second until I realized these data only capture those who were eventually successful at landing an R01 from the NIH. Look at those 10-18 (!) year grads. Look at the poor souls stuck for 10-15 years in postdoctoral hell. Sure, they are the exceptions to the distribution and no doubt the successful exceptions to the distribution of folks who got stuck for that length of time in graduate school or postdoctoral "training". But it was possible for some to succeed at last. Wouldn't you like to hear their stories? I know I would....

43 responses so far

  • Niiiiice.

    Data! ::drools::

    But I wonder if these take into account certain "normal" delays. For example I took 2 years off in between my undergrad and starting grad school, and that seems to be more common recently. So according to this I would be a 7.5 year BA/S to PhD, though I finished my PhD in the program-suggested 5.5.

  • F says:

    There are a number of scientists who work for a few years (e.g. as a technician) before entering a Ph.D. program. This would probably account for some of that long tail in the BS to PhD chart.

  • The average age of award was estimated to be 38 years.

    I wonder why this is so much younger than the NIH average? Because NIGMS is essentially all basic science, with no clinical or translational, so many fewer MD and MD/PhD applicants?

  • drugmonkey says:

    The age-to-first graph is broken down by PhD, MD/PhD and MD, PhysioProf. They come in even older...

  • Then why this massive difference for NIGMS?

  • DM says:

    Maybe because they flexibly change the mix of PIs to meet their aims?

  • Dev says:

    DM, yes, the analysis is based on those that got awards, plus the rules and regulations of the time interval, and the many other variables.

    Now, I'm not kissing the NIH's 'yellow brick road' (haha), but it's a tough call because of the situation is, and no matter what: limited money and an increasing population of graduates, which in turn are part of the same system. So that amount of funding available is a strong selective pressure.

    'these data only capture those who were eventually successful at landing an R01 from the NIH'

    It makes one wonder 'stuff'.

  • Jeremy Berg says:

    Thanks for posting these data. With regard to the age difference, I think two factors (at least) are at play. The first is a technical point. These data pertain to assistant professors (that is true early career investigators) rather than "new investigators", that is, first-time R01 recipients. Second,as you note, I think the basic science fields that NIGMS primarily supports do tend to include individuals who do shorter or fewer postdoctoral fellowships.

  • Hey, one other thing. How the fucke does NIH know how old we are, anyway? I can find anywhere that I have every given NIH my birthdate.

  • whimple says:

    The graphs appear to be normalized. There could be a column on the "asst prof to grant" graph that represents "never". Four years in is the usual "major pre-tenure review" which may account for the big bite out of the histogram at that point. Presumably there's an additional bite from the histogram at around the 6 or 7 year mark... Could we see the graphs drawn to the the same Y-axis scale?

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I think what JB is referring to is that the previous "forty something" at first R01 were data that also included NSF etc. researchers that received first R01s or what have you later in the career.

  • DM says:

    Whimple it is all the same 360 individuals that got their grants in 2004-06. The drop off population is not captured in this analysis. It is retrospective not prospective.

  • Joat-mon says:

    What happened to all the people that were stuck at the "instructor" or "research assistant professor" level? Was that part of the calculation? 42-38=4, that sounds about right length for this type of positions.

  • Jeremy Berg says:

    These data correspond to individuals who had R01 grants funded by NIGMS. Thus, it is a retrospective analysis of selected individuals who had been awarded an R01 and had achieved the rank of assistant professor or its equivalent. As Pinko Punko noted, we excluded first-time R01 recipients who were not early in their careers (who had been previously funded by other agencies in the US or abroad). Some of these individuals are quite senior.

  • Prabodh says:

    All is fine. What is the time gap between first and second RO1 which is essential for a promotion or tenure

  • becca says:

    This isn't age, this is age post-Bachelors.
    If you ask me, the really easy time to shave years off is before then. Set up an educational system where people's first useful credential is earned by 18 (a Bachelor's or equivalent). The sorts of people that end up getting NIH grants are all smart enough for this.

  • Jeremy Berg says:

    One aspect of the gap of 3.6 years between the start of the assistant professor position and the start of a funded R01 bears some comment. The point (for which I do not have substantial data although we did look at this in a preliminary way) is that many assistant professors do not submit applications until several years into their faculty position. When I started my faculty position (in the mid-1980's) it was more-or-less expected that applications would be submitted before or soon after starting on the faculty. My personal sense is that, in most cases, waiting is not a good approach. If you apply right away, you have presumably just competed with many other talented people for the faculty position based on some exciting projects. While waiting does allow some time to collect preliminary data, etc., my sense (from my time on study sections) is that study sections take such factors into account. If you have been is position for 2 years there is likely to be some discussion about initial productivity, etc. so that the bar is likely to be higher than it would have been initially. Furthermore, waiting means that you are consuming valuable start-up resources. Again, this is just my impression about part of the explanation for this gap.

  • drugmonkey says:

    We miss you at NIGMS, and here's why https://t.co/niHINJd8

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    When I got the asst prof jobbe offer I wanted, I called my close friend--who is now a Hughes investigator and full prof at Rockefeller--and told him about it. He was all like "Have you started writing your R01?" And I was all like "What the fucke are you talking about? I'm fucken drinking!" And he was all like "Get writing, motherfucker."

    So I submit the fucker before I even arrive at my asst prof jobbe. And it gets triaged. But it was *definitely* the right thing to have submitted then, and led to me getting my first R01 earlier than otherwise, even though I never even resubmitted the fucker.

    This is for a number of reasons:

    (1) Practice writing a grant.

    (2) Feedback from the subfield study section on what they expect in a legit R01.

    (3) Subfield study section knows I'm now a player.

  • anon says:

    DM - I'm with the first commenter - it's fairly common that people take 1-2 years at a tech job before going to grad school. I was a tech for 2 years and then finished a PhD in 5 years.

    Second, I respectfully disagree with JB regarding applying for an R01 right away as a new asst prof. I did this - applied within 4 months of starting my position and this ended up being a fatal mistake. My applications kept getting triaged with the most common criticism being "not enough data". I think had I been allowed enough time to generate data, I would not have wasted so much time writing grants. It may also be worth mentioning that I became a faculty member just as NIH support for new investigators took a cliff dive (~2005). I ended up getting funded by a different agency, but lost the position. In fact, my department eliminated all of its junior faculty. All of us.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Did you get a tech, postdoc or student in the lab ASAP, anon? Or we're you the sole data-donkey?

  • drugmonkey says:

    becca- there is no way in hell science would be benefitted by selecting those that know they want this career at 18. FFS we're nerdy and spectrum-y enough NOW!

  • neuromusic says:

    Yeah, DM, I'm with Voytek, F, and anon re: the interpretation of the first histogram.

    "time from BX to PhD" is a different measurement than "length of PhD" and almost certainly has to be higher and is likely influenced by (a) individuals who took time to travel the world before their PhD, (b) individuals who spent time working in industry or a research lab before their PhD, (c) individuals who got a Masters before going into a PhD program, (d) MD-PhD students who have spent at least two years in Med School before getting their PhD really rolling.

    I'm pretty sure that at least half of the student coming into my program had 1-3 years in between the completion of the Bachelors and start of the program for one or more of these reasons.

  • drugmonkey says:

    ...and may we assume the median time-to-completion is totally hunky-dory and a nonissue in your program, neuromusic?

  • anon says:

    DM- I had an entry-level tech and a couple of grad students who spent a good part of their time in classes. I did not have enough startup money to afford a post-doc. I needed to be at the bench myself to train these people and to get the shit done.

  • DM says:

    Was the failure to get funding the factor leading to the elimination of all jr faculty, anon? Or were other reasons advanced as cover?

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Regarding junior faculty: the institution across the street from mine now has a policy of only hiring people who currently hold two RO1s. So for all intents and purposes they've stopped hiring junior faculty.

    The "eat your young" syndrome is becoming surprisingly common.

  • Jeremy Berg says:

    With regard to the time from BA/BS to Ph.D., I believe Bradley Voytek et al. are correct. A significant fraction of individuals took time between the BA/BS and starting graduate school. I believe that the current estimate (from FASEB?) of time to degree is 5.5 years. It could still be a bit shorter, but that factor has not contributed more than a year or so to the trends into the late 30's/early 40's.

  • Jeremy Berg says:

    anon: My impression about when to submit initial proposal is a generalization based on observations that folks who waited often got criticized for not have published anything from their own labs and that some individuals who submitted right out of the blocks did well. Nonetheless it is a generalization and the best generalization about success in getting funded is whatever got you funded is good advice and whatever didn't (no matter how sensible) is not. My point in raising the issue was that, from an NIH perspective, it is very difficult to fund early stage investigators when they first become independent if they do not submit proposals.

  • anon says:

    The reasons were all fiscal. I managed to get a modest grant, another person had NIH funding, but we were axed anyway. Very few of the senior faculty had substantial funding, and along with deep budget cuts from the state, the department didn't have a chance. The jr faculty were the first to go. I've since heard that the whole department has collapsed and the remaining faculty were reappointed to other departments. It was impossible for anyone to see that coming when I first accepted the position there. Anyway, the fact remains that it took me fucken forever to get any funding at all. If I did that again, it would have been more useful for me to have spent more time building up data to support the story I was trying to sell.

  • Jeremy Berg says:

    drugmonkey: Thanks for your kind comment about missing me at NIGMS. Although I am getting settled in here in Pittsburgh, I do miss that job with its perspectives, ability to influence, and the wonderful colleagues there. For an interesting perspective on the person who is most responsible for shaping NIGMS (Ruth Kirschstein) see the new biography of her written by Alison Davis, Always There: The Remarkable Life of Ruth Lillian Kirschstein, M.D. (available free at http://www.nih.gov/about/kirschstein/index.htm including for Kindle, iPad, and Nook)

    With regard to the specific issues your raise, I have two comments. First, writing for a government blog is a challenge. One has to word everything in a very circumspect way and their is a tangible conflict between the formality of "official government pronouncements" and the informality of blogging and person-to-person communication.

    Second, the issue of how to balance graduate student and postdoc salaries, overall grant sizes, and number of awards (success rates) is an important and complicated one. Given a pie of fixed size, the only question is how you slice the pie. NIH committed to increasing graduate student and postdoc stipends toward the end of the "doubling period" but then did not follow through when the budget increases to support these increases stopped. With the exception of a couple of years with small (1 to 2%) increases, the stipends from NIH have been flat. Average grant sizes have also been relatively flat. Of course, other costs of research have increased over this period of time and other factors (e.g. competition between institutions) have pushed stipends higher (particularly for graduate students). If grant sizes were allowed to increase to track these increased costs, the number of grants that could be made would drop significantly (probably by about 20%). I know the staff at NIGMS and elsewhere at NIH struggle with these issues frequently. My personal sense is the increase in the relative cost of graduate and postdocs should contribute to investigators and institutions (in partnership with NIH and others as appropriate) looking seriously at other workforce models (scientific staff) as alternatives to getting the research done by training more and more folks for positions that are not likely to exist at least in the near future.

  • DJMH says:

    Tying these two threads together: If a grad + postdoc timeline were only, say, 5-8 years on average (the way it was back in the old days), it wouldn't be so much of a problem that the salaries sucked. But since grad + postdoc is now 12 years and counting (I realize that the "grad" years on these graphs encompass pre-grad tech years or whatever, but on the other hand I bet postdoc length is over 5 years in neuroscience right now, so it evens out), I think it is only reasonable to pay people like decent human beings who might be trying to, you know, raise kids.

    As it is, it will be quite a struggle to pay for daycare for two kids on two postdoc salaries.

  • I think it is only reasonable to pay people like decent human beings who might be trying to, you know, raise kids.

    As it is, it will be quite a struggle to pay for daycare for two kids on two postdoc salaries.

    I suspect that it is even more of a struggle to pay for daycare if you are one of the post-docs who loses your job or never gets one because post-doc salaries are rising rapidly while grant budgets are declining.

  • Mongo says:

    "What the fucke are you talking about? I'm fucken drinking!" And he was all like "Get writing, motherfucker."

    i. love. CPP.

  • DJMH says:

    (a) If one of us loses our job, we don't have to put the kids in daycare--that person IS daycare.

    (b) If PIs can't afford to pay as many postdocs as they used to, that's probably good. Smaller labs are more efficient than larger ones.
    https://loop.nigms.nih.gov/index.php/2010/09/27/measuring-the-scientific-output-and-impact-of-nigms-grants/
    (can't find the DM post on same)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Unfortunately, DJMH, that (b) analysis is fatally flawed until and unless there is some way to realistically grapple with the huge difference in the cost of generating GlamourPubs, particularly on a consistent basis. Combined with the increased chances that a consistent GlamorPub'ing lab will require lots and lots of grant funding to play at that level.

    Also, notice how the 75th %ile keeps going up where the median flattens off? Shows that some significant fraction of top-funded labs keep their pubs on pace with the trend even *with* my observations about high IF operations in mind...

  • userj says:

    It seems pretty obvious to me that the longer (9+yr) BA-to-PhD times are people for whom academia is a second career. That is, they worked for 5-10 years in some other occupation before starting grad school, or because they switched fields, they had to get a master's or another BA/BS before proceeding to grad school. I do agree that a "too-long" PhD time isn't the worst thing.

    The 5+ year post doc looks much worse in comparison...

  • HFM says:

    What other people have said - straight-from-undergrad types are the minority in my PhD program, and though it does make people older when they graduate, it doesn't mean the PhD itself is too long.

    The postdoc period, on the other hand...it's a serious deterrent, at least to me. The 4th-5th year postdocs seem to be caught in the middle - too young for academia, too old for industry, and too grown-up to be wandering around in a series of low-paid temporary positions. I'd like to take a shot at academia, but I'm pulling up the BS-to-PhD stats myself, and the prospect of a RealJob right out of school is enticing.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Am I the only one who wants to know what the asst profs who took 12 years to get their first grants were doing?

  • J. Swift says:

    A modest proposal.

    We need to cut costs in science. Since graduate students are being trained, we pay them far less than a living wage, especially in expensive cities where the best schools are. Of course, for the rich kids, this doesn't matter. We do the same to postdocs. However, it is not enough, we need to stretch the NIH dollars further.

    So this is simple. Assistant Profs are now being trained to be Associate Profs. Since they are now trainees, we can cut their pay, probably by half to start. Associate Profs are now training to be Professors, we can also cut their pay, probably by 60 or 70% to start. Also, the janitors are just training for a more permanent position, so we can cut their pay. The HR department are just being trained for HR jobs in industry or overseas, so we cut their salary by 90% or so. What are we training professors for? We're probably training them to fly all over and be absentee mentors and lab leaders, and make lots of money consulting for industry. Since they are trainees as well, and since every grant has at least one Professor, let's cut their salary completely, they don't really need it.

    Finally, at the NIH, everyone there is simply training for another job, and they live in the relatively cheap DC area, so they can take some cuts too.

    Some may worry that all these trainees will run to the pharmaceutical industry. However, there are fewer and fewer pharmaceutical jobs these days, so they really don't have anywhere to run.

    Once we've made these salary cuts, I'm sure that science will go much further for the dollar.

  • whimple says:

    Love the logic J. Swift.

  • userj says:

    @Isis

    Because it's focused on basic research, NIGMS funds many people who are also/primarily funded by other agencies, especially NSF. So they may try for an RO1, but it's a stretch and it takes awhile for NIH to bite.

  • […] substantial lag between obtaining a faculty position and obtaining R01 funding, comparable to what Drugmonkey posted with my data from NIGMS (although these results were from times where success rates were somewhat […]

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